Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Justifying My Love, Part 1

Over the next week or two, I'll attempt to explain, elaborate, explicate and generally rationalize some of my 2006 Top Ten album picks, recently submitted to the Jackin' Pop Critics Poll put on by the music blog Idolator. It's a personal challenge that will surely reveal the random subjectivity and dangerous lack of any real aesthetic framework involved. I can confess right up front that I've not heard every album produced in 2006, so already I'm building my empire in the sand next to an oncoming tsunami. That said, the Sophists proved you can prove anything with fancy words. And I've got some fancy words, trust me. Like specious and nugatory.

Here's Lefty's unchallengeable list for '06:

Bob Dylan - Modern Times
The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
M. Ward - Post-War
TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
Dixie Chicks - Taking the Long Way
Joanna Newsom - Ys
Belle & Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
Ladyhawk - Ladyhawk
Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy - The Brave and the Bold
Various Artists - Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys

Now don't FREAK OUT, I've got perfectly good reasons for some of these. We'll address the Dixie Chicks pick later on. In honor of my cofounder, let me start by posting "Pancho" by Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy, from the strange covers album The Brave and the Bold. The original was by country singer Don Williams, whose main claim to fame (as far as I'm concerned) was his appearance in Smokey and the Bandit II. Interesting: The song isn't from the 1970s, but from a low-key 1998 album by Williams, I Turn the Page, that didn't get much critical reception except maybe in Branson. But forget its unlikely provenance, the song's real strength was its ability to draw a sweet emotional human-like feeling from the oft-aenesthetized Will Oldham. It was an unexpected gem that popped out at me only after repeated listenings to the album.

Pancho - Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Like everyone else, I was initially preoccupied by the cover of Springsteen's "Thunder Road," which is so arch and android-like it defies easy interpretation. The icy jazz treatment drains out the top 40 heat and leaves it cold, warped chrome. It's creepy and endlessly mesmerizing, especially the thick, lasery opening riff. But then I realized that all the other songs were amazing in their own very distinct ways, with even the "failures" offering a cracked fascination. "Pancho," of all of them, is the easiest to feel and understand, an unlikely straight-up cover with a lush and supple arrangement that creates a fragile, blown-glass version of the original. The Richard Thompson cover "The Calvary Cross" is another that's surprisingly elegant, only slowly revealing its power over time with patient listening, especially with headphones. Hey, 2006 was a long year! This album got very mixed reviews when it came out last January, but to paraphrase Jim Croce, you can't put Bonnie Prince in a bottle. Or maybe you can, but then he ages well inside the bottle and later you decide his is actually one of the best albums of the year.

The Calvary Cross - Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Thunder Road - Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy

PS: I see I've given short shrift to Tortoise here, a group I generally find lacking in ... songs. But they're really sensational on this album, playing warped but precision chops off Oldham's shambling presence. The combination is a winner.

1 comment:

Daylightrambler said...

I really liked this album; especially considering that Tortoise hasn't put out quality material in a long time. You're right about them lacking in songs, as they're best described (in some review, somewhere) as a "22nd century jam band."

The best cover of "Calvary Cross" I've ever heard was Peter Laughner's. Check it out if you haven't heard it.